2018-02-15 / Front Page

County may seek to hike taxes

For 911, seniors
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

Leelanau County voters will likely decide this year whether taxes should be raised to support the county’s 9-1-1 emergency dispatch system and the county’s Senior Services programs.

Next week, the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners will consider options for imposing an additional surcharge on every phone line and wireless phone registered in the county to help pay for an upgrade of the emergency communications system.

A proposed increase in the phone surcharge could be substantial, requiring a vote of the people on the issue.

Less than a year ago, the County Board decided on its own authority to impose a phone surcharge of 42 cents per month per phone line – the maximum amount a County Board can levy without asking permission from taxpayers through a ballot question.

The county is paying off bills on a $2.4 million upgrade to the county’s 9-1-1 emergency dispatch system that included the acquisition of new digital radios for every fire and rescue department and other emergency response agency in Leelanau. The project also included the purchase of new equipment in the 9-1-1 dispatch center and other telecommunications improvements.

At the County Board’s executive meeting this week, county treasurer John Gallagher said payments on the upgrade can be covered through this year and 2019 with money the county is taking out of its general fund and a delinquent tax revolving fund. However, further draw-downs of those funds are not sustainable, he said, so alternatives need to be explored.

County administrator Chet Janik said it’s clear that there’s little support on the County Board for imposing a new property tax on county landowners. In addition, it could take years for the State Legislature to adopt a law authorizing a “per-household fee” to pay for 9-1-1 services like the measure adopted a decade ago to help pay for solid waste recycling services.

However, an additional phone surcharge of 80 to 85 cents per month – raising the monthly surcharge to somewhere around $1.25 per month per phone line – could go a long way toward covering much of the $276,000 annual payment the county has committed to making each of the the next 10 years to pay for the new 9-1-1 system.

In addition, the county could also retain a higher percentage of the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) that some Leelanau County townships receive from the National Park Service based on its acreage within those townships. In recent years, the county has been retaining only 10 percent of PILT payments, distributing most of it to the six townships within park boundaries.

At this week’s meeting, County Commissioners discussed retaining 50 percent of the PILT payments in the coming years, raising about $50,000 annually that could be applied to paying off the 9-1-1 upgrade expense.

Janik promised to have additional and more exact figures available for the County Board to consider at its regular monthly meeting Tuesday evening. Commissioners will need to act in or before April for the phone surcharge proposal to be placed on the August Primary Election ballot, he said.

That’s also the deadline to put a millage renewal proposal on the ballot to support the county’s Senior Services programs. A 0.275-mill property tax levy approved by voters four years ago will expire at the end of the year.

At this week’s executive meeting, District No. 3 Commissioner and County Board Chairman Will Bunek reported that a Senior Services Committee that he and two other commissioners serve on has been taking a hard look at the department’s budget.

Bunek reported that the committee is considering asking voters for a higher millage rate to support Senior Service, up to 0.35 mills. The 0.275-mill levy was expected to raise about $725,000 this year; a 0.35-mill levy would raise more than $900,000 next year.

Last year, the County Board authorized a $65,000 infusion of General Fund monies into the Senior Services budget to eliminate shortfalls resulting from an unexpected uptick in the number of senior citizens requesting services. At the board’s direction, the department also imposed “means testing” on many of the services it provides for seniors, and its budget was stabilized by the end of the year.

The County Board set a “committee of the whole” special meeting for March 20 at 3:30 p.m. prior to its regular monthly meeting to consider a recommendation on a Senior Services millage increase.

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